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Boris Johnson called Treasury the ‘pro-death squad’ during Covid pandemic, inquiry told

No 10 took no advice on ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ and Treasury had no estimated cost of lockdown, inquiry hears

Archie Mitchell,Adam Forrest
Monday 06 November 2023 18:08 GMT
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Rishi Sunak rules out accelerating the roadmap out of lockdown

Boris Johnson joked about the Treasury being “the pro-death squad” during the pandemic because it wanted to ease lockdown restrictions quickly, Sir Patrick Vallance’s diaries have revealed.

The former chief scientific adviser recorded a meeting in which the former PM said he wanted to lift all Covid restrictions by September 2020.

In an extracts from his diary, shown to the Covid inquiry, Sir Patrick said Mr Johnson “ended up by saying the team must bring in the pro-death squad from HMT [Her Majesty’s Treasury]”.

The revelation came as a senior No 10 official confirmed the government did not take advice from scientists about how Rishi Sunak’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme could impact the spread of the virus before it was rolled out.

Stuart Glassborow, ex-deputy principal private secretary, told the inquiry there was no “direct” analysis from top scientists on how the scheme, launched in autumn 2020 by the then-chancellor to boost the hospitality industry, could impact infection rates.

He also told the Covid probe on Monday that neither Sir Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, Sir Patrick nor Sage were consulted over the scheme.

Asked whether No 10 was aware there had not been a scientific analysis of the policy, Mr Glassborow said: “I, and others in No 10, did become aware that there hadn’t been direct ... analysis on this policy. So we did come to know that.”

Asked about the “pro-death squad” entry, Mr Glassborow said he “did not recall” Mr Johnson using that phrase. He was also asked about Sir Patrick’s belief that Mr Johnson was “obsessed” with the idea of elderly people “accepting their fate”. Mr Glassborow said he “did not recall” Mr Johnson using that phrase.

Earlier, the former top economic adviser at the Treasury, Clare Lombardelli, was pressed on whether she knew whether the potential for Mr Sunak’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme leading to increasing infections was considered.

Then-chancellor Rishi Sunak was mocked over Eat Out to Help Out branding (PA)

She said: “I don’t know. The policy was conceived in the context that it was safe to lift restrictions and activity could return.”

The Covid inquiry was also told how the Treasury urged Mr Sunak in autumn 2020 to “push back” on calls for a so-called circuit breaker lockdown.

It was shown a briefing note prepared for the then chancellor which said: “We suggest you push back strongly on the circuit breaker proposal. The economic impact would be severe, making firm failures and redundancies far likelier.”

And, painting the Treasury as having been opposed to further Covid restrictions, the inquiry was shown a second briefing note from that September, which said: “We are reaching the limits of what we can do economically, with further measures likely to be catastrophic.”

Another major revelation from the inquiry was Ms Lombardelli’s confirmation that Treasury officials did not produce an estimated cost of lockdown. She blamed the lack of a “reasonable counterfactual” of what would have happened had the government not chosen to lock down.

Ms Lombardelli, now the chief economist at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), said it was the Treasury’s job to “provide evidence and analysis on the economic impact” of policies, which could then be weighed by decision makers against issues such as health.

Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak said to have clashed over post-lockdown restart (PA Archive)

The inquiry was also shown notes on Monday from data scientist and former No10 adviser Dr Ben Warner in February, which showed he believed the NHS was “f***** in any scenario”.

Dr Warner clarified in his witness statement that he meant the health service would be under “extreme stress” no matter how the pandemic played out.

He also railed against the government’s handling of the pandemic in autumn 2020, before joking with Downing Street communications chief Lee Cain that “we have banned ourselves from going to the pub after this”.

In September 2020, Dr Ben Warner told Mr Cain he felt like the pair had “walked out of Covid in June and walked back in today”.

Mr Cain told Dr Warner “agree mate, we are so f*****”, adding that the government was making the “same errors as March” - a reference to the delayed decision-making process in the early days of the pandemic.

WhatsApp messages shown to the inquiry then show Dr Warner telling his colleague: “Worst part, we have banned ourselves from going to the pub after this.”

The inquiry has seen more sweary WhatsApp messages from Dominic Cummings, including one in which he calls then civil service head Sir Mark Sedwill “the f*****”.

Mr Cummings, then Mr Johnson’s top adviser, told the PM that scientists were doing a “great job” while civil servants were “off the pace”. “You need to tell Sedwill this,” Mr Cummings told Mr Johnson. He added: “The f***** should be in the office now.”

Meanwhile, the latest extract from Nadine Dorries’ new book shared claims from Mr Johnson that Mr Sunak “refused to engage” with him on kick-starting the UK economy after lockdown because the chancellor wanted to be PM.

According to the extract in the Daily Mail, Mr Johnson told Ms Dorries: “Looking back, I can see that’s because there was a plan to remove me, and people were saying to him: ‘Don’t give him anything’.”

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